500 Tacos: Cantina Laredo

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Cantina Laredo
201 W. Third St. (map), 512-542-9670, www.cantinalaredo.comHours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat; 11am-9pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 06.23.15
My folks — and maybe your folks, too — don’t have much patience for the eccentricities of local restaurants. National and regional players fill the gaps for them, offering familiarity, consistency, sanctuary. With locations in 15 states, Dallas-based Cantina Laredo fits that model for Mexican food a step above casual, and more than a few steps away from an authentic Austin Mexican experience. But that doesn’t mean a total lack of local control. Cantina Laredo calls its local franchise owners “proprietors,” and the taqueria menu created by Austin proprietor Al LoCascio was adopted beyond Austin. Carnitas, brisket barbacoa, fajitas, pescado and pollo tacos run $10 -$11 at lunch and $13-$14.50 at dinner. But like other operations that draw on the economies of scale, Cantina Laredo’s happy hours and specials are good ways to shake hands with the chain. On Tuesdays, tacos and Tecates are $2 from 4 p.m. to close, and happy hours offer half-price bar plates like ahi tuna tostadas, ceviche and loaded queso, along with $5 house margaritas (4-7 p.m. Mon-Fri; 9p.m.-close Mon-Sat; 11-5 Sat-Sun).
The taco: Beef fajita
You can’t overestimate the draw of the familiar at a regional chain, and Cantina Laredo’s fajitas work the familiar formula of skirt steak that’s hardy but not tough, with a sear that creates an almost caramelized crust for beefcake sweetness. It’s dressed with avocado, pico de gallo and queso fresco for a nice execution of a familiar form. I’d recommend the housemade flour tortilla. ($2 on Tuesdays from 4-close; $14.49 dinner; $10.79 lunch)
 The taqueria menu: Not long ago, the Cantina menu included a beef-rib taco, a stylish choice for a chain menu with many masters to please. It’s not there now, to my chagrin. So it’s no surprise that the “barbacoa” taco isn’t the funky, fatty cow’s head of a mom-and-pop taqueria, but the safe refuge of brisket. But it’s good brisket, moist and well-salted and finished with marinated onions. I also liked a pork carnitas taco with a subtle chipotle-wine sauce. But like so many cabbage-dressed fish tacos, Cantina Laredo’s mahi-mahi suffered from overcooking and fishy overtones. ($2 a la carte on Tuesdays from $ p.m.-close; $10-$14.50 for plates at lunch and dinner)
 Tortillas: Cantina Laredo makes its own flour tortillas. They’re as thin and sheer as fish-&-chips paper, but strong, with a surprisingly bready taste. The 4-inch, single-layer thick corn tortillas are storebought.
 Queso: I’d balk at paying the full $10 price for Queso Laredo; it’s only marginally more reasonable at half-price during happy hour. The consistency of its midline cheese base changes little from when it’s hot to when it cools down, and its character comes primarily from a payload of ground beef and pico in the center.
 Salsa: Two red salsas come out with free tortilla chips. One is fortified with roasted tomatoes and peppers, cool and chunky and smoky. The other is served warm, like a thin enchilada sauce, heavy with salt and chili powder and lingering pepper heat.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)